So here I am again, writing an article I'd very much hoped not to write. Because the 2014 MLB playoffs were supposed to feature the NL Central Division Champion Milwaukee Brewers.
But that's not the world we live in. No, we live in a nasty, cruel world where the Cardinals are in the playoffs again. We live in a dark world where articles like this are necessary, where I watch the playoffs with far more negative interest than I do positive, where my satisfaction comes from watching others I dislike fail rather than those I like succeed. A world where when my immediate reaction to the words "Take your Jedi weapon. Use it. I am unarmed. Strike me down with it. Give in to your anger" would be "Ok. Hold still, Yadi." In short, a world tainted Cardinal red.
But there are teams to like, or even love here. True, they are almost universally in the AL, but hey, there are good, deserving, underdog teams to root for. There are long frustrated fanbases with legitimate reason for hope. And J.J. Hardy! Teams whose success would fill me with optimism, and even a hint of joy strong enough to make me forget my envy, at least for a little while.
As always, the ying and yang present in these teams are represented by the best embodiments of all we love and loathe in 2014 baseball: Jonathan Lucroy (Lucroys) and Kirk Gibson (Gibsons). Yes, Emperor Palpatine just put the smack down on Gibson, but there is no human in baseball currently more worthy of loathing than the plunk-ordering, fist-bumping Kirk Gibson, whose own hatred burns so hotly he appears to have lost the ability to love the game that gave him so much. McCutcheon's back demands that the man be recognized for the bolus of bile that he is. As for Luc, it's true he doesn't bubble with love and joy the way Carlos Gomez does (last year's love logo), but Luc fits my mood currently by reminding me that quiet, unassuming men can grind out success by sheer effort and will, traits that frankly remind me of the things I love about Wisconsin itself. Both love and hate are measured on a 10 point scale herein.
And away we go:
St. Louis Cardinals - 9.9 Kirk Gibsons
Seriously, eff these guys. There isn't anyone outside St. Louis or the bandwagon "Best Fans In Baseball" that isn't sick to death of this freaking team and talk of the "Cardinal Way". Hell, head on over to VEB and while you'll see a sizable dollop of BFIB nonsense, you'll also find a good number of decent folks who seem more than a little embarrassed by the whole notion of the "Cardinal Way" and the fact that "Best Fans In Baseball" moniker is associated with them. (You'll also see a rather inexplicable, somewhat annoying, and yet pervasive pessimism, which should seriously be studied in depth, because it's absolutely nuts.) The old complaints are well known, and many of the perpetrators are gone. Yadi's still there, and I still don't like him. It's been several years now since he stood on homeplate and helped instigate a brawl with the Reds that ended one of his teammates' career. It's been a couple of years since he spat on an ump. It's been a year since he got tossed for slamming his helmet and then had to be held back so he didn't physically assault the ump who tossed him. Heck, a few weeks ago he appeared to be the voice of reason when KRod thought he got bumped after a game when in fact he hadn't. Still don't like him, but he's been fairly well behaved this year, and he even fist-pumped his way around first a couple of weeks back against the Brewers, which while I didn't exactly enjoy, at least told me that the Cardinals' long held belief that looking like you enjoyed playing baseball was a horrible crime might, just might, be losing some sway even in St. Louis.
Then there's Matheny. Matheny was once a Brewer. I didn't realize he was a dick then. Maybe he wasn't at the time. He is now. A few years ago he sued a bank for expecting him to pay back a loan he took out with them and seem genuinely surprised when the Court responded with the legal equivalent of "uh... what? Yeah, that's horseshit." This year he got pissy over an obviously (and hilariously) well intentioned "negative ad" supporting Lucroy's first all star berth. In explaining his irritation, Matheny said the "Cardinal Way" stuff got blown out of proportion, before spending 70 words talking about how many great players the Cardinals have produced recently. Matheny also picked Wainwright over Kershaw for the all star start, potentially costing his own team home field advantage when Wainwright grooved, or didn't groove, depending on when you asked him, a pitch to Derek Jeter. Matheny also freaked out and suggested interference should have been called when one of his players got deked into thinking a throw was coming when it really wasn't against the Brewers, something that apparently never, ever happened in the tens of thousands of baseball games Matheny has witnessed first hand. A really surprising fact since I've seen it a few hundred times myself and you'd think that Matheny would have run into it before as well. Guess not. Either that or he's just a lying prick. A couple of days later he freaked out because an ump reacted poorly to being cursed by one of his players and waved the guy back to the dugout after a called strike three. Matheny, being the man of principle that he is, waited two more outs until they game was over and then came out of the dugout and acted like 10 minutes hadn't passed in the interim, which not only suggested that his outrage was premeditated and false, but makes the fact that he made physical contact with the ump after having a few outs to calm down pretty inexcusable.
There are other reasons to hate the Cards. Like the fact that they're boring, lifeless unwritten rule fetishists who we've seen so often in the postseason that watching them there again is a little like watching recordings of a 6 year old's piano recital if the 6 year old isn't your kid: after a while, the idea of taking a melon baller to your eyes is a little more palatable. So yeah, eff the Cards.
Pittsburgh Pirates - 9.5 Kirk Gibsons
Yeah, my Pirates loathing has blossomed nicely now. The Pirates fans trolling over here at BCB certainly didn't slow that down, but it really started when Garret Cole got completely outraged by something Carlos did which was actually pretty stupid and which helped the Pirates. Either too outraged to notice that the behavior he didn't like held its own punishment, or more likely, too stupid to catch that particular nuance, Mr. Manners strolled over to 3rd base, made a comment, and then ran and hid when all hell broke loose. One deranged part time playing Pirate and one Maldanado haymaker later, a few guys got suspended and Cole went unpunished. Because MLB is stupid. Cole recently provided further evidence of his non-MENSA-membership by getting upset when one of his teammates got hit by a pitch when he made the decision to express his outrage at an unintentional beaning by punching an innocent dugout railing with his pitching hand. God must love idiots, because Cole emerged from both that incident and the brawl with the Brewers unharmed.
The Pirates also appear to have become unnecessarily bitter about their guys getting hit by pitches. Maybe it's just fallout outrage over McCutcheon missing time after taking a pitch to the back after Kirk Gibson put a hit out on him. The incident with Garza hitting McCutcheon that triggered Cole's assault of a dugout rail is well known. Just yesterday Clint Hurdle (apparently without a keen sense or irony) complained when Cueto drilled McCutcheon, and he went on record implying that it was on purpose. Moments later, when it was (again) pointed out to him that Pirates pitchers had hit 87 batters this year and that the next closes team had hit a mere 69, Hurdle responded by saying "We pitch inside and our players understand there can be some collateral damage." Maybe they do, but apparently Clint doesn't. And apparently the only team that can possibly inadvertently hit anyone is the Pirates themselves. Last year they were the team who hadn't made the playoffs in forever. This year they're just a bunch of whiny pricks.
LA Dodgers - 8.5 Kirk Gibsons
As I said last year, I'm aware that the presence of Greinke is enough to make the Dodgers somewhat popular in these parts. I love Zack too, but it's not enough to overcome the rest. The rest, and I'm aware not too many people care about this all that much anymore, involves the fact that the Dodgers have a TV contract that pays them 6 billion over the life of the deal, that they added enough payroll in a year a couple of years back to buy the Brewers for their selling price back in 2004. One of the increasingly popular notions is that the Brewers are so well run by Attanasio that they're effectively not a small market team anymore. This is false. And I will no pretend that the Dodgers had the same degree of difficulty the Brewers had when the 2014 season began. They didn't. If they did, Greinke would have anchored the Brewers rotation this year.
I'm aware of a thought process that suggests that big market teams winning the series every year might lead to change. I'd buy that if it weren't for the 1990's, the decade in which that happened and in which change didn't come. Change isn't coming. No one is pushing for change to baseball's economic structure anymore. Instead people simply suggest there is no real problem and that competitive balance exists. They never really talk about the Dodgers in that context. Greinke notwithstanding, I cannot and will not root for a team like the Dodgers so long as the Brewers have to face them if they want to get to or advance in the playoffs. I'll root for them if they play the Pirates or the Cards, but otherwise, not so much.
Los Angeles Angels Of Whomever Writes A Bigass Check - 6 Kirk Gibsons
With apologies to BrewAngel, eff the Angels. Like the Dodgers, the Angels essentially chucked thoughtful team construction for writing a series of obscenely large checks a few years ago. Up until June or so I was very much enjoying watching the choke on their large contract free agents. David Freese landed there, and no, I don't like that guy at all. Watching him hit grand slams and generally kick the hell out of the Brewers for a year or two while wearing a Cardinals uni will do that to you.
Speaking of which, hey look, it's Albert Pujols. And guess what, he may not be as good anymore, but he's still an ass. This year he got upset because someone had the temerity to point out that Mike Trout was better than he was. This is both obvious and true. But we all know Albert, and we know that obvious truths make him uncomfortable unless they involve the use of his name and the word awesome. Yes, even in 2014, Mr. Pujols appears to still be of the belief that he is the best player in the league, when in fact he's not the best player on his team. The funny thing is, that's not even something to be ashamed of, because the guy he compares unfavorably to is MIKE TROUT. No one is as good as Mike Trout. It's ok, Albert. Part of me was temporarily heartened by the fact that Fat Albert and Trout joined in an on-field celebration back in July. He got a hit off of Mariners' closer Fernando Rodney, who had broken out his "arrow" celebration earlier, a wee bit early as it happened, because a couple of hitters later Pujols doubled home Trout. Pujols then mimicked the "arrow" celebration that Rodney employs, directed at Rodney himself, by mimicking the motions necessary to shoot him with a bow and arrow.
Yes, THAT Albert Pujols did that. Even more incongruous is the fact that after the game Pujols laughed about it and said he'd known Rodney for 15 years and that he always told him he was going to do that to him if he got a big hit off of him. Trout said, quite appropriately, "it was spur of the moment. We were having fun." What is this, humanity? Dare I say it... a sense of fun? I'm almost... I mean, that's actually sort of... NO, dammit, I will not like Albert Pujols. I mean, it's ok to mime shooting a guy with an arrow on the field but UNTUCKING is unacceptable? Forget that.
And then there's the ongoing Angels stadium tour. Most teams, even teams owned shameless hucksters like Al Davis, at least agree to change their names when they ask municipalities to prostitute themselves. Not so the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, now soon to be the Los Angeles Angels of "YOUR CITY NAME HERE!" Seems to me like they just added the Anaheim moniker, but they're looking for a new stadium outside of Anaheim, and if they find one, I hope they at least have the courage of their conviction, keep both Los Angeles and Anaheim and become of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim of Tustin, or whatever hole in the ground burg they manage to get to give them a billion dollars to stay for 15 years.
Giants - 4.0 Kirk Gibsons
Like the Cardinals, it's getting a little nauseating seeing the Giants in the playoffs all the time. I don't like Angle Pagan, but the guy's hurt and out for the postseason, so that's not really a factor anymore. I resent the fact that Buster Posey (who my wife enjoys calling Busty Poser, which I inexplicably find hilarious) is one of the reasons that Lucroy doesn't get the attention he deserves, until recently anyway. While I don't like the rule, I can't in all honestly blame Posey for the no collision at home plate change in the game. They annoy the Dodgers, which helps take the edge off a little, but they annoy the A's, which pisses me off. In the end, they've won too much for me to be a fan, although I'll root for them shamelessly against the Dodgers, Cards and Pirates.
Detroit Tigers - 3 Kirk Gibsons
Leyland's gone. Prince is gone. Most of what I liked about the Tigers is gone. What's left is a series of fat free agent contracts and a noodle-armed Verlander, even after they managed to get the Rangers to take Prince off their hands. The Tigers are a large market team masquerading as a Midwestern burg like Milwaukee and KC and St. Louis. Not buying it, and I'm not interested in the Tigers winning anything. Maybe it's because I still remember Detroit burning after the 84 world series. Mostly it's Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, neither of whom I ever liked no matter how good they've been.
Here's where the coin flips. I must be getting soft, because there's a lot more teams I actually sort of like in this year's playoffs than there are normally.
Washington Nationals - 1.0 Lucroys
It's hard for me to get all that worked up about the Nats. I actually like Bryce Harper, who still seems to be widely disliked for reasons I can't quite fathom. Hey, look, that guy plays hard and acts like he cares! How dare he! Look, I get why Braves fans hate the Nats, and I get why Orioles fans hate the Nats. A couple of years ago I was in complete disbelief when they sat down Strasburg for the playoffs, but the Baseball Gods made them pay for that, and dearly, so I can't really hold that against them anymore (the exact same thing has happened to the Rangers, by the way). Heck, Zimmerman pitched for UWSP where I spent two years of my undergrad career. All in all, I'll probably root for them against anyone in the National League.
Kansas City Royals - 3.0 Lucroys
Behold Ned's redemption. Honestly, I don't know what he Royals are doing here. I was a Brewers fan in the 90's so I know what a bad organization looks like, but I'm here to tell you, Brewers fans know nothing, John Snow. They've got a title, and that's not nothing, but for the past generation or more this team has been a massive train wreck. They were quite literally clueless about what was happening to baseball and to their organization, let alone how to fix it. A day or so ago Joe Posnanski over at Hardballtalk wrote a piece on the futility of the Royals, and it is stunning. Worse than Steve Sparks dislocating a finger while tearing a phone book in half. Worse than a tie in an all-star game in your new stadium. Just worse. Go read it: http://hardballtalk.nbcsports.com/2014/09/27/a-royals-toast/
I know, right? And they've got Ned. Now I don't really like Ned. I'm guessing you don't either. I was glad he got canned in 2008, but I knew even then he got screwed. The guy had helped make the players on that 2008 squad, the heart of it anyway, better over the previous few years, and now that the payoff was near, he was gone. Maybe the payoff wouldn't have come if he stayed. We'll never know. But it wasn't fair, even if it was the right call. And for a long while it looked like the same thing would probably happen in Kansas City, assuming that the Royals ever actually made it over the hump.
The Royals can pitch. They don't score much. They fought and clawed and scratched their way into the wild card game. They've scored enough for 14th overall in the majors, and the lowest of any playoff team... (except the Cardinals, what the hell have we decent, Cardinals hating fans done to deserve this not so fresh hell?). It's been even worse recently. Let's be honest, they aren't going to be around long. They're playing the A's in the WC game, so I won't be rooting for them (even with Aoki), but I'll be pleased if they get to a full playoff series. For them. For their fans. And yeah, a little bit for Ned too.
Oakland A's - 5.0 Lucroys
Here they are again. Can they win an actual series and make a run at the title? I really sort of doubt it, but a guy can dream. This team has been sticking its thumb in the eye of large market squads for 20 years, and my small market fan's heart loves them for it. They play in a literal shit-hole, and they win anyway. If the playoffs happened in July, they'd probably be the favorite to win it all, but it's October (or soon will be), and predictably, the A's have faded badly. Again. Billy Beane has famously said "My shit doesn't work in the playoffs." And to his great credit, he not only said that out loud, he's tinkered endlessly trying to figure out an approach that will that doesn't involve the resources of the Angels or Yankees or Red Sox, because he'll never have those resources.
How can you not love the A's? How can you not root for them? The A's, for the resources they have and the organization they are, went all in this year. They were the best team in the game for a long time, and then they went out and dealt Yoenis Cespedes to Boston for John Lester, and it's clear, in my opinion, why they did it. Beane concluded that pitching, very good and great pitching, wins in the playoffs. I don't know if he's got enough, but he gave up a big part of his team's batting order to get a guy with a history of ace level performances in the playoffs and the series, in my opinion trusting that his team would get to the playoffs even while scoring fewer runs.
He was nearly wrong. Very nearly. But the A's, while blowing their division lead, hung on for a wild card, and they play an elimination game against the Royals this week with Lester on the mound. My guess is that they get by the Royals and get to the divisional round. I'll be rooting for them, because I admire Beane's guts and his constant willingness to be ruthless in evaluating himself and his own methods.
Baltimore Orioles - 6 Lucroys
This is the team I'll be pulling for first in the playoffs. JJ Hardy is still here, and I'm still a fan. He's not what he once was (he wasn't near the end in Milwaukee either, and I still can't believe Melvin got Gomez for him), but it's hard for Brewers fans not to still be a fan of his and still feel bad about the way Hardy went out of the Brewers organization. Nelson Cruz is here as well, and dammit, the guy just feels like a Brewer. Always has. (I mentioned Gomez for a plus for Melvin when Hardy's name came up, so it's fair to say this... Kevin Mench? Really Doug?)
I grew up in the AL East era of Brewers history, and I hated the Orioles for some of that time, but the edge on that hatred died after 82 and the Brewers win on the last day of the season, and then the subsequent reenactment of the Yount's two homer day by Orioles players, one of whom wore Orioles' pitcher Jim Palmer's jersey and a pair of men's underwear over his uniform during the incident, while Dempsey wore a Yount Jersey and mimed going yard against Palmer. Dempsey then sang "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" with the crowd. How can you not love that?
The Orioles, in making the playoffs, have to get by both the Yankees and the Red Sox, not to mention the Rays, so it doesn't happen for them all that often. Watching them win it all would be enjoyable for me, and I'm adopting them as my team this October.
So that's how I see it. I don't know if I'm just worn down by this season or what it is, but my negative rooting interests are largely outweighed by how much I like some of the AL teams. Probably has to do with the unique mix of squads that made it into October on that side of the bracket. I hate the Cards and Pirates as much as I ever have though, and I'll probably be more engaged in those games as a result.